While it is well known that alcohol consumption should be avoided during pregnancy and breast feeding, its effect on male fertility and their future offspring is perhaps less widely recognised. At Flinders Fertility, we not only want to help patients achieve a pregnancy and a healthy baby, we also want to help encourage positive lifestyle changes.
One such lifestyle factor that is often discussed when trying to conceive is alcohol intake. Alcohol consumption is measured in units, and in Australia, 1 standard drink is equivalent to 1 unit (1). You may have seen the number of standard drinks per serving on bottles or cans of alcoholic beverages.
In the laboratory, we measure a number of different parameters to assess semen quality. This includes the volume of semen, sperm motility (how they move), sperm count (how many sperm are present) and sperm morphology (how they look). Current research shows that there is an increasing trend towards alcohol having a negative effect on male fertility, which can be observed in the laboratory by measuring semen quality. Drinking greater than 25 units (a carton of beer) per week has shown a decrease in sperm count as well as some of the hormones responsible for the production of sperm (2). Consumption of alcohol has also consistently shown to negatively affect the volume of semen and sperm morphology (3).
If drinking is ceased, improvements in sperm quality may not be evident immediately since it takes about 74 days for a sperm cell to develop and reach a stage of maturity where it is capable of fertilising an egg. Interestingly, there have been cases published which have shown a total absence of sperm (azoospermia) due to heavy chronic alcohol intoxication (4). However, abstaining from alcohol for as little as 3 months showed an improvement in semen parameters to normal levels (4).
The potential intergenerational effects of paternal alcohol consumption is also a growing research area, and current evidence in animal models has shown that increased alcohol exposure might negatively impact future offspring via changes in the epigenetic blueprint of sperm (5, 6). For more on epigenetics and how it influences the health of future generations, refer to our recent blog.
Based on the current evidence in this blog, it might be important for male partners to assess their alcohol intake when trying to conceive as long term drinking in excess can have a negative affect fertility as well as future offspring.